How many fish are in the sea?

A few miles off the coast of Massachusetts, aboard the fishing boat the Miss Emily, chains groaned as they lifted the sodden net out of the water. The multi-hued strands opened, spilling their meager contents onto the deck. “This is definitely a small catch,” said William Hoffman, senior marine biologist with the Massachusetts Department of Fisheries. The scientists and fishermen aboard the boat splashed through the flopping fish, shoveling them onto a conveyor belt and then quickly sorted the catch by species: flounder, hake, sea herring, haddock, lobster.

After sorting the fish, the team tossed them back onto the conveyor belt by species. Hoffman caught each fish as it came off the belt and slid it down the table to his colleague Nick Buchan. Hands protected by thick blue gloves, Buchan grabbed hold of a slippery flounder. He lined its nose up at the end of the electronic measuring board and stamped a small magnet onto the board just where the fish’s tail fin forked. The computer wired to the board blared as it recorded where the magnet landed, locking in the length of the flounder. Buchan seized the fish around its mid-section and tossed it into a nearby orange bucket to be weighed. The whole process took only a few seconds, and Hoffman and Buchan were on to the next fish. 32cm, BEEP. 28cm, BEEP.

The team worked quickly and efficiently, identifying, sexing, sizing, and weighing hundreds upon hundreds of fish. They would repeat this day’s activity multiple times over eight months, in a carefully plotted program to count the diversity of fish in Massachusetts state waters.

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About the author

Ashley Herriman

Ashley Herriman is the online editor for National Fisherman.

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